It Can’t Happen Here

On Wednesday I discussed looking at civil war in our digital world and how power is now acquired via new technology. Today I want to share some of the stuff I’ve been reading that sparked that piece.

First, the idea that a civil war can’t happen here, aka the zombie thinking of American Exceptionalism. I read a really interesting interview with Barbara F. Walter, and expert on how civil wars begin. I’ll share a few excerpts:

So, I’ve been studying civil wars for the last 30 years outside the United States in places like Iraq and Libya and Afghanistan, Mozambique, Northern Ireland. I haven’t looked at the United States, because until recently, there’s been no reason to do that. And one of the things that we’ve learned is that even though these countries are different, the same factors tend to emerge again and again and they’ll lead up to civil war. And then over the last five years, I started looking at my own country, and I started to see these factors emerge not only here, but emerge at a surprisingly rapid rate.


And so, what the task force did is initially, they sat around a table and they brainstormed about all the common sensical things that these experts thought could potentially lead to instability and violence. And the first and most important one was something that we call anocracy. Anocracy is a fancy term that political scientists give to governments that are neither fully democratic nor fully autocratic. There’s something in-between, you could think about these as partial democracies. And that was surprising. It turns out that full democracies rarely have civil wars, full autocracies rarely have civil wars. It’s the ones that are in-between that are particularly at risk.

And so I began thinking it can happen here, especially when I read this:

Yeah. What I see happening is what we’ve seen happening in other countries. And here in the United States, we are in the midst of a massive transformation of our country from being a country that’s a white majority to being a country that’s non-white majority. By about 2045, the United States will be a minority white country, that’s a fact. And what we are witnessing is a subset of the white population which is unwilling to accept this, and that also fits what we’ve seen historically. We know that the groups that tend to start civil wars are not the poorest groups, they’re not the immigrant groups, they are the groups that were once dominant, but are in decline. They either had power or they know they’re losing power, and they believe that the country is rightfully theirs, and they are willing to use violence to stop it.

Here I would add a reminder about that excellent 60 Minutes story about the men from Allentown, PA who attended the rally and the tie to feeling like they were losing power.

I’ve been discussing this with the people I talk politics with online and when I say that the US is on its way, or already in the opening stage of a civil war they get angry. Really angry. And I get it—it’s absolutely frightening to think that things could get so much worse. The most common response I get is that civil wars have to feature large armies fighting each other. But I don’t think that’s what happens in the 21st century, and I think Walter is right here, too:

And so, what we’re going to see is a different type of civil war, and you’ve seen this in other countries as well. Something that’s more decentralized, it’s fought by a large number of smaller malicious paramilitary groups, sometimes they work together, sometimes they don’t work together, and they’re using unconventional tactics, the tactics of the weak against the strong, gorilla warfare, terrorism. So, a bomb here, a mass killing there, targeting infrastructure, targeting crowded spaces, targeting civilians. That’s the type of civil war we’re more likely to see here. And in fact, it will look more similar to what the IRA was doing in Northern Ireland, or even what Hamas has done in Israel.

The entire interview is really good and I invite anyone interested in everything she had to say to say to listen to it or to download a transcript of it.

The other thing I’d like to highlight is an essay by Stephane Marche. Where Walter looks at the start of civil wars from several steps back, he has all the details ready to go. But he also offers a path forward:

The United States needs to recover its revolutionary spirit, and I don’t mean that as some kind of inspirational quote. I mean that, if it is to survive, the United States will have to recover its revolutionary spirit. The crises the United States now faces in its basic governmental functions are so profound that they require starting over. The founders understood that government is supposed to work for living people, rather than for a bunch of old ghosts. And now their ghostly constitution, worshipped like a religious document, is strangling the spirit that animated their enterprise, the idea that you mold politics to suit people, not the other way around.

It’s another piece of Cassandra-recommended reading. And, yes, it can happen here. First we need to get Democrats elected in November, and then we need to work on making a system that actually serves the people. Take care of yourselves.

This seems like a good last word:

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